Rollin’ with Brandon D: driving the streets that made the rhymes

by Jordan Green

The heat seems to shimmer off the asphalt on one of those days when the mercury hovers around 100 as Brandon D, the Greensboro rapper who entered this world as Brandon Davis, steps around to the drivers side door of his mustard-colored ’68 Eldorado on South Elm Street.

‘“I’m riding old school,’” he says, in reference to the car’s lack of air conditioning. ‘“Just roll down the windows.’”

Cruising away from Hamburger Square, Brandon turns the big boat past the new brick townhouses that make up the gentrified Southside development on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The car rumbles across East Lee Street, and we cross into a more battered stretch of city full of weedy vacant lots and faded two-story homes. These are Brandon D’s streets, for they represent his childhood, the creative grist of his lyrics, his identity, and not least of all his will to escape his limitations.

He left all this to join his uncle for a time in Los Angeles in an unsuccessful gambit to break into the music industry, but now these streets have snapped him back like a taut rubber band. And after a couple years of Elektra records idling on him while his single ‘“Da Cak Joint’” created a minor national sensation on the airwaves, Brandon was let out of his contract and is set to release his debut album, Rollin’ With the Punches, on the independent label NAPS Krew Entertainment that he started with his partner J. White. The album is scheduled for release on Aug. 13, his 24th birthday.

‘“That’s the shelter where I used to stay when I was a kid,’” he says, gesturing towards a shuttered low-slung building. Then we turn past a row of new Victorian houses near where Murrow Boulevard spills onto East Lee Street, and he notes: ‘“This all used to be crack houses and liquor houses.’”

Brandon seems to know just about everybody in the neighborhood. He pulls the Eldorado up to the curb to greet a shirtless guy with dreadlocks, who says he’s ‘“just coming off the J-O-B’” and getting ready to relax. Brandon tells him he’ll let him get out of the heat, and the guy waves and smiles, saying, ‘“Keep the world alive, Brandon.’” Then, it’s a brief stop at a neighbor’s house to say hi to a fellow lyricist named Nick whose rap handle is ‘Knowledge,’ a friend of Brandon’s since school days. Brandon tells him about some upcoming parties where he’ll be performing, among them Montego Bay, Cheap Seats and Sugar Bare’s in Greensboro.

One of Knowledge’s barefoot kids approaches the gate and waves the peace sign, and then we head down the street to the home of Brandon’s grandparents, Elijah and Barbara, who are keeping cool in the kitchen as a handful of kids watch cartoons in the front room.

Organizing successful parties will be a key element for getting the new album off the ground, especially for an independent artist. After a handful of parties in the Triad, Brandon and his partner J. White plan to take the show to all the major population centers of North Carolina, including Greenville, Wilmington, Charlotte and Asheville.

‘“I had a show with K-Ci and Jo Jo at the Blind Tiger,’” he says. ‘“Everybody left happy. No minor scuffles, no minor brawls. It was the best party I ever did.’”

One of the three tracks on Brandon’s advance promo, ‘“Club Hoppin,”” is an electrifying future-shock party track with a deft lyrical patter that should handily satisfy the needs of Gate City hip hop heads who are out for the entertainment. ‘“Da Cak Joint,’” with its stuttered sample of Billy Joel’s ‘“Moving Out’” has become something of a Carolina anthem thanks to some selective national airplay, including on Greensboro’s 102 JAMZ, WJMH FM.

But it’s the trenchant, hard-edged ’70s era soul of the third song on the promo, ‘“All This Time,’” that should nail Brandon’s reputation as a solid lyricist. The streets southeast of the Lee Street/MLK Boulevard intersection are all over the track, and in many respects the track represents Brandon’s life to date.

With an instrumental track that suggests the mood of the Temptations’ ‘“Papa Was A Rolling Stone’” and a chorus featuring the soulful, anguished voice of Ricco Barrino ‘— member of Infinity, brother of Fantasia ‘— Brandon has a supple page to lay down a tight novella of his life. The first chapter spares no feelings, as he chronicles growing up homeless with a father who could barely contribute because of a drug habit and gradually faded from the scene.

Towards the end of the track, as the tempo rises, the tale resolves to a kind of standoff between struggle and triumph, as he acknowledges the sacrifices his mother made to keep the family together: ‘“Working on Christmas morning ‘— what’s the meaning of that?/ To get my family out of the gutter, same reason I rap/ It’s like the boulevard of MLK is a trap/ Now I’m leaving the Cak, but I’m bringing it back/ Now I’m gonna leave it at that.’”

We roll back up MLK towards Elm Street. Things are looking up for Brandon, and maybe for the neighborhood too. With sharp new brickwork on the sidewalks and the new townhomes north of Lee Street, it looks like a neighborhood on the move, but Brandon takes an uncharitable view of the alliance of city government and developers responsible for the area’s revitalization.

‘“My understanding of it is that the city just let cats run wild until the property values dropped as low as they could,’” he says, ‘“and then they bought everything back up.’”

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